When I moved from the suburbs of New York City down to the bucolic university town of Blacksburg, Virginia for a PhD program, I expected the culture shock. What I didn’t realize was how much I would divest from my old life to be successful in the new one. Most of my campus colleagues are overachievers like me, and we spend much of our time chasing after looming deadlines or leaping over the major hurdles and the ditches that pockmark the doctoral pathway. This doesn’t leave time for many activities we once deemed seminal to our lives. However, the biggest change has been in our perspective on grades. The most common refrain among my cohort seems to be, “B’s get degrees.” (That and, “Don’t quit the program in November or April.”) In other words, we need to stop measuring our worth by the letter next to our coursework in order to survive to cross the finish line.
I loved getting my report card as a child because I did well in school when nothing else felt secure. Good grades at least meant that I had something by which I could measure my value in at least one important aspect of life. This persisted even in the workforce, where the true rating in yearly evaluations was the percentage point of the raise and bonus you received rather than the narrative on your job performance. When I returned to school 18 years after graduating from college, I joined a master’s program that provided evaluations instead of grades, but there was no gold at the end of that rainbow. I appreciated the effort to have students engage during the semester rather than focus on the end result; I nonetheless felt relieved when I returned to traditional grading—and in-person connection—at the program where I transferred. I could go back to assessing myself using a standard that others agreed meant achievement.
A curious thing has happened since earning a master’s degree (a terminal one for my profession) and my license as an MFT (marriage and family therapist). While I desire straight A’s because they still make me feel good about myself, they no longer sit in absolute judgment of my worth—or me.
Perhaps it’s my training as a psychotherapist, which helps me to understand that I’m not here to look good on my CV, but to explore facets of education that inspire and inform me both professionally and personally. My clinical experience also tells me that competition can be counterproductive. I hear this kind of toxic comparison often in trauma therapy when clients say, “I should be over the abuse I suffered as a child because it wasn’t as bad as what I’ve heard from other people” as if that kind of pain could be mitigated by the negative experience of others. I create a safe environment for clients and students to grow by expressing themselves and by taking risks that could lead to what society terms as “failure,” but is really a stepping stone to success; it feels too hypocritical not to give myself this same permission
Maybe it’s my age. Being in my 40s has radically changed my perspective on myself, others, and humanity in general. I care what others think, but opinions don’t have the same burning, clawing effect anymore. As a dear friend of mine says, “What others think of me is none of my business.
My changing attitude could be the result of my spiritual journey. As a follower of the Yogic philosophy of Hinduism, I strive to compete with only myself. I learned long ago that trying to make myself into a pretzel to be like my yoga teacher friends was not best for my body or my self-esteem. I practice meditation and the art of letting go, surrendering to the Universe’s wisdom. That means if something doesn’t work out no matter how much energy I have spent on it, I live with the acceptance that another direction may be in my ultimate benefit. Sometimes saying no to an opportunity is saying yes to a better life.
Applying these spiritual concepts to grad school seems easy on the face of it, but it has been a hard won fight through self-judgment. Until recently, when an illness made me hyper aware of my pathway, I could not merge my spiritual and educational lives except in the therapy room with clients. I have had to let go of the worry that I will not attain the standards set for being successful in academia; with this comes a greater acceptance and realization of myself. I no longer need to memorize facts to impress a teacher so I can be rewarded with a gold star because that is not how I succeeded in my work life after college. I started as a green reporter and, by the time I returned to school, I was a communications executive on Wall Street. I understand best when I can see the whole picture before I take in the details, and I have a mind castle that needs attention and nourishment to grow. So, now, the refrain “B’s get degrees” no longer feels like giving up on achieving success, but allowing myself to focus on the true worth of my education.